Brands, white lies and saving the planet

July 31, 2012

Every hotel has a sign somewhere in every room asking guests to do their part in conservation by reusing a towel. You save the planet, the hotel saves a little cash: It's a win-win. All for a good cause, right?

What sounds better?
“Help us save $66,000.”
Or, “Help us save the planet.”

Every hotel has a sign somewhere in every room asking guests to do their part in conservation by reusing a towel. The sign may include a picture of a babbling brook or some statistic about the gallons of water saved each year, but it does ignore another notable fact: Your efforts of conservation save the hotel money. The hotel is less than transparent in their motives to enlist your help. You save the planet, the hotel saves a little cash: It's a win-win. All for a good cause, right?

Help us make a difference

Is it ok for hotels to distract you from the truth by offering a feel-good motive?

Transparency is an imperative in building a strong brand that your customers, partners and employees can trust. But is it ok to lie a little bit sometimes?

Costco offers an example of full transparency in presenting customers a tangible outcome for their contribution to cost savings. The big box retailer posts signs in parking lots asking people to return their shopping cart to the designated areas, so they can continue “to keep prices low.” Small consumer sacrifice leads to noticeable customer benefit.

Wal-Mart, on the other hand, employs a bit of revisionist history in telling their eco-friendly story — though for Wal-Mart it really has little to owe to customer behavior. Several years ago, Wal-Mart embarked on an initiative towards more sustainable business practices. Reduced packaging, more fuel-efficient trucks and other such efforts have resulted in literally billions of dollars per year in savings. So now Wal-Mart can boast about leadership in eco-friendly practices that simply make good business sense. Yet their goal at the outset was pretty much in line with everything else they do at Wal-Mart: Cut costs. Is Wal-Mart’s eco-conscious story a reverse-engineered white lie, or just a convenient repackaging of the truth? One man’s environmental benefit is another’s margin enhancer.

Back to the hotels. The amount of money a given hotel can save by washing a few fewer towels and sheets every day is not in the same league as Wal-Mart’s savings. Yet all of those unwashed towels (and the unused water and soap and electricity and labor) do add up. A couple of years ago, Alliance for Water Efficiency pegged these savings at about $66,000 per year for a hotel, based on a 250-room hotel and some occupancy assumptions. As any homeowner knows, conservation is good for the bottom line. Consumers may sense this intuitively, but the little bathroom plaques you see in the bathroom do tend to ignore this.

Sometimes the mysterious beauty of a white lie is that you can kind of trick yourself into not believing what you already know to be true. If I hang my used towel on the hook and make do with yesterday’s sheets — and a bunch of other guests do the same — maybe we’ll prevent a load or two of wash today. We all like to think that this small act will keep that brook babbling. It will definitely help the maid clean the room faster and will have a minor impact on the hotel’s water bill. Plus, my experience is enhanced with the small satisfaction of this little painless sacrifice in the name of future generations. I’ve been lied to and, in the end, everybody’s happy.

One more interesting aside in the “Save the planet by reusing your towel” discussion:
Saving the environment may not, in fact, be the most productive white lie when it comes to the behavior of hotel guests. According to researcher Robert Cialdini and a team of Arizona University market research students who tested wording of these kinds of signs in Phoenix hotels a few years ago, implied peer pressure seems a more effective motivator than environmental sustainability. In their small tests, these researchers found that a message of “Join your fellow guests in helping to save the environment” had a significantly better performance rate (based on reuse of towels) than the broader “Help save the environment.” The “fellow guests” message scored a rate of 44% reuse; the “environment” message only inspired 30% of guests to save their towels. Pushing it a bit further, the researchers saw even better results by combining an outright lie with some peer motivation: “Seventy-five percent of the guests who stayed in this room … [used] their towels more than once.” That sign had a 50% success rate. As far as I know, none of Cialdini’s students tested a sign that told people the hotel would save money.

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